During a Thursday Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing to examine the persistent and concerning threats posed by terrorists and violent extremists, a witness agreed with Portman on the importance of the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Counterterrorism Center providing Congress and the American public with data on domestic terrorism as required by Title LVI: Federal Efforts Against Domestic Terrorism in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Portman highlighted that without data, Congress is not able to effectively perform oversight or craft legislation to address or prevent domestic terrorism.
As Portman stated during his opening statement, in addition to the withholding of required data on domestic terrorism, the Biden administration has also failed to provide requested information pertaining to international terrorist threats to the United States, including information on the border crossings of watch-listed terrorists, as well as the terrorist who exploited our asylum system to gain entry to the United States and plot to murder former President George W. Bush.
A transcript of his questioning can be found below and a video can be found here.
Portman: “Great. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. There’s so many questions I have, but let me start with some of the testimony we heard today. Ambassador Sales, you talked about your time at the State Department where you designated the Russian Imperialist Movement as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, or SDGT organization. And you said those kind of designations are an important tool which helps U.S. combat international terrorists, in that case, white supremacist terrorism. Would you say that it is more challenging to designate a white supremacist organization than a different international terrorist group?”
The Honorable Nathan Sales, Nonresident Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council and Former Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State: “Well, thanks for the question, Senator. I think it can be more difficult, in part because of the way that white supremacist networks are organized and how those organizational models often differ from more traditional terrorist organizations. Whether you’re talking about Islamists like Al Qaeda or ISIS, on the one hand, radical Marxist guerrilla groups such as the FARC in Colombia, right-wing Jewish groups in Israel like Kahane Chai, those traditional groups typically have hierarchical command and control structures where leadership of the group sets strategic priorities, issues directions to members and operatives to carry out attacks, to raise money, or to take various other steps as part of the overall enterprise. By contrast, white supremacist networks, not just in the United States but globally, tend to follow what’s called a Leaderless Resistance Model. It’s a loosely associated group of ideologically sympathetic individuals who are coming out of the same intellectual, if you can call it that, ecosystem, but don’t have the same sorts of strict organizational command and control structures. Under the State Department and Treasury Department’s sanctions authority. To designate a group, the group has to exist in a cohesive coherent form. And to designate individuals, it’s often necessary to show, or it’s at least often helpful to show, that those individuals are acting at the behest of or pursuant to directions issued by a group. That’s fairly straightforward when you’re talking about the ISIS affiliate in Nigeria. It can be a lot more difficult when you’re talking about white supremacist groups that may not be groups in the same sort of sense.”
Portman: “So let me ask you this. We have not seen additional designations of international white supremacist groups really since you left the State Department, I don’t think. Is the reason for that what you just stated, that it is much more difficult to designate them, and if so, and give me a quick answer, if you would, what can we do about that?”
Mr. Sales: “So the quick answer is yes, I think that’s right. It’s certainly a priority for this administration to continue the designations work. We haven’t seen that translate into actual designations yet. And I think that’s in part because some of the organizational and structural differences with these groups.”
Portman: “Federal law enforcement and terrorism experts argue the government should take an ideological agnostic approach to investigating and prosecuting terrorists. Mr.German, your testimony alleges that the Department of Justice and the FBI are not prioritizing investigations and prosecutions of white supremacists and far-right violence. Should the FBI prioritize investigations based on ideology or the risk of violence?”
Michael German, Fellow of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law: “They should prioritize investigation by the level of violence. Right? And that’s why it was so important to get the data that’s requested in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, because if you know that one group is responsible for 90 percent of the fatalities and 98 percent of the violence and there are actual murders or very serious violent attacks that are not being investigated by the federal government, where there’s another group that might engage in some nonviolent civil disobedience or property crimes and they’re disproportionately devoting resources to those investigations. That’s where the flaw is if your goal is to stop the violence. So you need the data about the violence. And if you do that, you’ll see that you need to turn those resources towards the most dangerous threats and investigate those crimes thoroughly.”
Portman: “I think that’s a very important point to make is that we haven’t received the data that was required in the NDAA in a timely basis. We did get one report. It was late, over a year late, as I recall, and we still haven’t gotten a second report. So we’re sort of flying blind in the sense that we don’t have the data that we need to be able to respond to our oversight role and even our legislative role. And I hope that’s one thing that comes out of this hearing is that we light a fire under the administration to provide better data for all of us, including for researchers, including for those of you who are experts who are trying to figure out how you do this. DHS told us last week that the primary threat of mass casualty violence in the United States comes from lone offenders and small groups motivated by a range of ideological beliefs and personal grievances. So that’s what we have so far. But we want a more comprehensive look at this because it is complicated.
“There’s a report from the Center for Strategic International Studies, in 2021 there was an increase in attacks and plots from anarchist and Antifa, and the terrorist threats from the violent far left are now contributing a greater percent of all terrorist threats. So this is complicated. There’s a lot of groups out there, and the anti-government stuff is probably the top concern, at least of some of the terrorist experts in government. Do you have any comments on that, Mr. German or anybody else?”
Mr. German: “Sure. One thing that they need to be careful about, and I think this is part of the problem with the way you know the FBI says their investigations are driven by criminality rather than ideology, but their domestic terrorism categories are established by ideology. So if you create an ideological category that’s going to compel FBI agents and their supervisors to want to open investigations of people of that ideology who may not actually be committing the kinds of violence that fits the definition of domestic terrorism. So it can be a distraction away from that. And I think Portland, Oregon is a good example where the federal government charged almost 100 people during the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. But groups from outside of Oregon were traveling in far-right militant groups like the Proud Boys were coming into Oregon and instigating violence and committing violence on the street with very little law enforcement interference. And I’m not aware of any federal prosecutions that resulted from that violence and that lack of law enforcement attention to that act of violence allowed them to build networks and to promote the people who were most violent so that by the time January 6, 2021, came around they had the mechanisms and the networks and logistics to get people across the country to be here to organize what the government alleges was the assault on the Capitol.”
Portman: “So your point, broadly, is that the focus ought to be on criminality, ought to be on violence. It ought not to be pigeonholed in any one ideological area, but rather an objective look at who’s creating the most violence and criminality.”
Mr. German: “Right, and to be clear, I think even the poor data we have now would suggest that white supremacist violence is a far more persistent lethal threat than any other. So I think that would naturally require more of an investigation of white supremacist criminal acts.”
Portman: “My time has expired. I’ve got so many other questions and we’ll follow up with some written questions, if that’s all right for the record, and thank you all for being here.”